The Washington area's National Football League team has a racist name, "the Redskins," and renewed pressure is mounting on the team to do something about it -- namely, change the damn name of the team to something that isn't plainly risible. Washington's owner, Dan Snyder, is resistant to it, having vowed, "We'll never change the name ... It's that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps."
If we were living in a world where football franchise owners could only speak the truth, Snyder would level with us, and simply say, "The trademark I own is extremely profitable, and I'm not willing to cut into those profits to undertake a costly rebranding of the team, even if that is obviously the right thing to do." (He would also probably say, "I really have no idea what I'm doing most of the time," and "I have essentially been fleecing football fans for every dime in their pockets for years," but that is a different story entirely.)
Because we don't live in a universe where football franchise owners are compelled to speak only true things by elemental forces of nature, Snyder offers a lot of dumb hooey about "tradition" as his rationale. And now NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is joining him in supporting Snyder in his effort to keep the team's name as racist as ever, in perpetuity, by defending the name in a letter to Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who co-chair the Congressional Native American Caucus. What the letter tells us, beyond the fact that Goodell places a similar paramount importance on profits, is that Goodell thinks that Cole and McCollum are stupid -- and by extension, so is everyone else.
In the letter, Goodell writes:
In our view, a fair and thorough discussion of the issue must begin with an understanding of the roots of the Washington franchise and the Redskins name in particular. As you may know, the team began as the Boston Braves in 1932, a name that honored the courage and heritage of Native Americans. The following year, the name was changed to the Redskins -- in part to avoid confusion with the Boston baseball team of the same name, but also to honor the team's then-head coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz. Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group.
That is, essentially, some flim-flam. The Boston football Braves were so named because they played at Boston's Braves Field, along with the Boston baseball Braves, who were so named because their owner, James Gaffney, was a Tammany Hall macher, and Tammany Hall used an Indian Chief as their logo. There's no suggestion, anywhere, that anyone named these teams thusly because they wanted to honor "the courage and heritage of Native Americans." The best possible spin in that regard comes from an urban legend surrounding the "Braves" name, suggesting that people wanted to honor the courage and heritage of the Boston Tea Party participants, who dressed as Indians during their exploits.
As for the matter of Lone Star Dietz, who coached the Boston Redskins for all of two seasons, during which time the Redskins went 11-11-2, it's not clear that Dietz was actually the Native American luminary he purported to be. Historian Linda Waggoner has done rather exhaustive research into Dietz's life and has concluded that Dietz's alleged Native American origins are at best indeterminable -- but more likely a hot load of malarkey. Regardless, it's pretty contemptible to suggest that "Redskin" honors any Native American, let alone Dietz.
To get a more succinct explanation for why the team got named the Redskins, I'll pass the mic to Alex Pareene:
This Washington football team was named by one of the most vehement racists in the history of American professional sports. When George Marshall bought the team in 1932, they were called the Boston Braves. He changed the name -- to a slur, because he was a racist -- and moved them to Washington. He made “Dixie” one of the team’s fight songs and refused to hire black players well into the 1960s. The NFL integrated in 1946 but Marshall’s team held out until the federal government actually forced them to field black players in 1963. The all-white Washington teams of the 1950s and 1960s were among the worst in the league, but segregation was more important to Marshall than winning football games. The NFL had actually already been racially integrated until black players were suddenly banned in 1933. Interviews with owners suggest that Marshall was responsible for the ban.
This is the man who named the team, and white supremacy and racism obviously informed this decision. In his will he insisted that his foundation not spend any money on “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.” It is extremely hard to believe that this man selected the name -- specially changed the name from a less offensive term for American Indians to this term -- to “honor” anyone, the usual argument used by the team’s modern defenders.
If there's one thing you absolutely cannot do if you want to make the case that the Redskins' name is not racist, it's rely on "the roots of the Washington franchise" to make your case for you, because "the roots of the Washington franchise" are shot through with virulent racism, thus making it intellectually impossible. Unless Goodell is an idiot -- and that's certainly up for debate -- he knows all of this, and is just madly spinning gossamer out of a plate of horseshit. But honestly, his excuse-making for the team's plainly opprobrious name gets a lot stupider from there:
For the team's millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America's most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect.
But couldn't you say the same about every NFL franchise? Is there actually something magically special about the racial slur "Redskins" that makes it more symbolic of "strength, courage, pride, and respect" than, say, "Patriot," or "Steeler," or "Eagle," or "Giant?" I mean, okay, "Dolphin," right? Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure fans of all teams see themselves as being unified around the notions of "pride" and "courage."
So Goodell is actually not saying anything particularly special about the Redskins franchise that he wouldn't say about any other franchise, except those other franchises don't have horrifically racist names.
If you want "strength, courage, pride, and respect," look to Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior who finally told George Preston Marshall that if he didn't integrate his team then he would have to take it on the arches and get the hell out of the government-owned stadium in which the team played. One more reminder that the Redskins, as a franchise, historically suffer from a dearth of "strength, courage, pride, and respect," not a surfeit, and their name is not helping them even one little bit.
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